Hong Chau (‘Downsizing’): Challenge of character was ‘to be grounded but to also be a little bit larger than life’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

After years of smaller television and film roles, actress Hong Chau had her breakthrough project in 2017 with the Alexander Payne movie “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon. She is now nominated in the supporting category for the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics’ Choice for her character Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese house cleaner and social dissenter.

Gold Derby’s Zach Laws hosted a webchat before her awards run, which you can watch above. Or read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Hong Chau, you’re one of the stars of Alexander Payne’s new movie “Downsizing,” which is due out around Christmastime. It’s such an interesting and creative concept. What did you think the first time you read the script?

Hong Chau: Well, I read the script just out of curiosity. I wanted to know what Alexander Payne was working on because I’m a huge fan of his and I didn’t know that there was gonna to be a role for an Asian woman in there, so that was a really nice surprise in a story that initially, based on the premise, wouldn’t really lend itself to having a character like mine in it. So for me, I personally care about all of the topics that get brought up in the film but I’ve never seen anybody do it in a way that felt entertaining as well as meaningful and intelligent. A lot of things can be commentary but it feels more like a term paper, like you’re watching a term paper happen onscreen. “Downsizing” isn’t that way at all and I really admire what Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne did with the script.

GD: Tell us a little bit about the story and about your character.

HC: Well, the premise of the story is that a Norwegian scientist figures out a way to shrink human beings down to five inches tall in order to help with problems around overpopulation and climate change. My character, her name is Ngoc Lan, and she is a Vietnamese environmental activist who is imprisoned and is involuntarily downsized and ends up in Leisureland through circumstances that you’ll find out in the movie.

GD: The character is so interesting to me. In turn she’s broadly comic, she’s also very down to earth. Can you talk about how you found the right balance for this character, if that makes sense?

HC: Sure, well, I think with comedy in general, characters tend to be heightened but the only way for comedy to also work is for it to feel real and to feel grounded in some way. So that was sort of the challenge with the character was to be grounded but to also be a little bit larger than life and also comedic. I also think that’s kind of where the tricky part comes in is when people aren’t sure what they’re laughing at and for me, I found a lot of inspiration from my parents, who are Vietnamese refugees. No one makes me laugh harder than my parents and no one makes me cry harder too, and I think it’s okay to laugh when someone you love does something strange or says something peculiar and I love Ngoc Lan and Alexander loves her too. So hopefully the audience loves her and when they laugh they’re laughing out of deep affection and nothing else.

GD: You bring up your parents and I was gonna ask you, I did a little bit of research before this, obviously, but looking at your background you have a interesting path that you took into acting. Can you talk a little bit about your background?

HC: Yeah, I grew up in Louisiana. I ended up there because my parents left Vietnam after the war and they were part of the boat people who left and they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand and that’s where I was actually born. We had a random sponsor family in New Orleans. They were also Vietnamese and we weren’t related to them. It was organized with the Catholic Church in New Orleans and we lived with them for I think the first year or two when we first arrived to the United States. When you have that sort of background, being an actor in Hollywood is like the wildest, most far-fetched occupation that you can think of and I kind of fell into acting because I was initially interested in writing when I was younger and I went to college initially thinking that I was gonna major in creative writing and that didn’t work out. I ended up studying film instead because I thought it was also another form of storytelling but that it was a trade and I would actually be able to find a job, and that’s such a silly thing to think now (laughs). It’s the most impractical thing to study in school.

GD: I did it too (laughs).

HC: I’m glad that it worked out, but the saying that it takes 10 years to become an overnight success definitely 100% applies to me because I started out doing extra work. I did non-union jobs. I eventually got co-star roles. My very first SAG role was an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” and then I graduated to doing guest star roles and then recurring guest star and then series regular and then I finally got my first feature film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” and now here I am in my second movie role, which is my first lead role, in an Alexander Payne film, opposite Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz. It’s really overwhelming to think about it because there are so many people who are quietly working and doing everything right but they’re not getting the opportunity to experience what I’m experiencing right now.

GD: Well congratulations again. Well deserved. So, going back to your character, it’s interesting. She comes into the movie pretty late into it but she has a very significant role. She has a very significant part in changing Matt Damon’s character, Paul. Can you talk a bit about that?

HC: I don’t know if I’m really changing him, to be honest. In the first part of the movie we see that he’s an occupational therapist and he helps people for a living. That is what he does and we also see that he took care of his mother and also his wife. So in terms of changing his character, I don’t think I changed him very much. We both mirror each other in a certain way where we’re both good people and we enjoy helping others. I would say maybe I activated him a little bit more in the second half of the movie.

GD: I was gonna say, let me rephrase that a bit. He does have those qualities before he is downsized but after he’s downsized there is a bit of wallowing in self-pity for a while. And then I would say that if not necessarily changing him, you help bring out those qualities in him again.

HC: I’m gonna reframe that. I see what you’re saying, but for me, I didn’t really see it so much as wallowing. For me, part of Matt’s character’s journey is very similar in a lot of ways to what an immigrant feels. And most Americans will never really understand what it’s like to uproot yourself from everything that you know and are familiar with and leave it all behind. So that’s the journey that Matt goes through, Paul Safranek. That’s what his character goes through so I mirrors my character’s journey in a lot of different ways, and also something that kind of gets touched upon in the movie is how we quickly “other” groups of people. That certainly happens with the downsized community, or people who choose to get small, and that’s something that happens with immigrants as well, so we’re kind of mirroring each other in different ways. I mean, I don’t wanna say you’re wrong (laughs).

GD: No, no, no. I did not take it that way. I have to say, I did not think about it in terms of his character’s experience, I did not think of it necessarily as being from the immigrant’s experience. That’s a really interesting take on it, I have to say. Was that the concept originally?

HC: Honestly, I have never discussed the themes of the movie with Alexander or Jim Taylor, who also co-wrote the script. That’s what I got when I read it. I personally as an actor don’t really discuss themes with a director and when I’m acting I’m not acting themes. I can’t “act” immigration and I can’t “act” climate change. Those are things that come up intellectually later when you’re viewing the final edited movie but when I’m acting I’m just approaching the character from a very emotional place. It’s more from the heart than from the head, if that makes any sense.

GD: No, that makes sense. Was there a moment in the film that was particularly difficult for you to play?

HC: There was, and it’s not in the movie (laughs). For good reason, ‘cause I couldn’t crack it. I couldn’t figure it out. It was a scene where my character, she’s trying to make a joke and she laughs, and I could not for the life of me figure out, “How does this woman laugh?” (Laughs.) That might sound crazy but maybe other actors will understand what I’m saying. Little moments like that, it’s like, “How does this person laugh? I don’t know.” And so we just tried it and tried it and tried it. I never felt good about it. Alexander was fine with it, but of course, he would never crush my soul or give me really terrible feedback. So it’s just not in the movie. But there’s always moments like that where you’re still trying to figure out and crack the character. In so many ways, acting is different from what we’re doing right now with interviews and press because acting is this process of not knowing and trying to discover the answer and with doing these interviews, I have to have an absolute certain answer for you. So that’s a little bit tricky for me.

GD: It’s okay, I like the back and forth here, the spontaneity. Talk a bit more about working with Alexander Payne.

HC: Oh, I love him. I love him so much. He is such a gentleman and I felt like he had so much love for this character and because of that, he gave me so much freedom and wanted so much to cast the right person and to get it right and he and I, we didn’t talk about the things that people have been asking me if we talked about. One of the very first things he said to me was that I could change the character’s name if I wanted to, to whatever it was that I felt really suited her because he felt and trusted that I knew this character and also that I was coming from a background and had a life experience where I could bring authenticity to the character and that I would know better about those things than he did, so he really trusted me with things like that and also during the big scenes with the monologues and anything that had a lot of emotion I felt like… he’s always a kind person but on those days in particular he was really trying to set me up for success and was trying to give me everything that I needed so I could just hit it out of the park. I really felt his support and his love. Then, I’ve never gotten to sit in on an editing process before and I sat with him during some of the post-production and got to watch the film being assembled and that was new for me and he was also very generous there in saying, “If there’s a take that you like better, please let me know.” And that’s a very generous thing for a director to offer an actor. I don’t think that happens all the time and it did in this case.

GD: There’s a lot of interesting characteristics to this character. There’s the voice, there’s the prosthetic leg. Can you talk about how those external things affected your character, your performance?

HC: Yes, it was tricky. Those sort of things, like having an accent or having a physicality in and of themselves aren’t interesting to me. It’s more about how it’s necessary for the character and I approach it that way. For the prosthetic leg that I had, it was my leg, I was walking on my own two feet but I did have an amputee consultant who happened to be a nurse before she became an amputee. So she was able to really explain to me everything in a very clinical way and that was very helpful and she brought me to the rehabilitation center in Toronto where she did her own physical therapy and I got to work with her therapist on that. So I had this apparatus strapped onto my knee called an iLeg and it’s what physical therapy students use so that they can empathize with their patients when they’re asking them to do these things. So I first learned to just walk in a straight line because I was trying to find my balance and then I graduated to eventually carrying a tray and not having a ball fall off of it and then I graduated to learning how to bend down and pick something up off of the ground and then I learned how to walk up and down stairs and all of those things that we take for granted. And it was a very special experience for me because I went in there… I don’t know anything. For some reason I assumed that when I was going in there I was gonna be in there all by myself and so when I got to the rehabilitation center there were actually other real patients there, people with disabilities who were doing physical therapy. So I had a little moment of panic when I first arrived because I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m a total fraud. I’m coming in here to just play around and to learn how to mimic and I hope that they’re not offended by this.” And they were so welcoming and so loving and I’m so grateful and appreciative of that.

GD: It was very convincing. I was trying to find out whether or not you actually were an amputee before we started out.

HC: (Laughs.) I’ve heard that a lot. A lot of people were afraid to come up to me or meet me because they thought that I might be an amputee and that I didn’t speak English very well. So I took that as a compliment I guess (laughs). But I’m like, “No, this is me. I’m just a Louisiana girl.”

GD: Talk a bit about working with Matt Damon.

HC: Oh gosh, he is such a dream to work with because he’s so gracious and he’s so capable and talented and something that kind of blows my mind about him, I don’t have this skill yet. He’s an amazing technical actor where he doesn’t have to look at the monitor to know what they’re seeing in the frame. When we’re doing coverage, he knows exactly where to shift his chairs to give me the best eyeline and things like that. It just blows my mind. I don’t know if a lot of people know this, that being no. 1 on the call sheet isn’t just about being a good actor. It’s also about being a team captain and being very gracious and welcoming of everyone on the cast and making sure that he’s being a team player in giving everyone what they need. So he’s not just being a good actor. He also has to be this great host, as well, on set. So I just loved working with him. I adore him as a person. He’s just a really nice regular guy. I wish I had crazy, weird stories to tell about him but he’s so normal (laughs). Maybe that’s the most weird thing about Matt Damon is that he’s so normal.

GD: Well yeah, there’s our headline. “Hong Chau: Matt Damon is so normal” (Laughs). Hong Chau, thank you so much. Congratulations on the film. Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure.

HC: Thank you.

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